Around 520 million people around the world suffer from osteoarthritis (OA), the most common form of arthritis, with 60 per cent of these cases affecting the knees. In a global study, OA was ranked as the 11th highest contributor to disability worldwide.

The exact causes of OA are still unclear; however, previous joint injury or a history of joint overuse, being overweight or obese, and genetics increase the risk of its occurrence.

In Malta, the incidence of disability caused by OA is also high.

“Osteoarthritis is the most common complaint for physiotherapy referrals within our outpatients departments,” Joanne Cardona, physiotherapy practitioner at the Musculoskeletal Outpatients Section, Karin Grech Hospital, says.

“Our referrals compare well with the statistics given by World Physiotherapy [the global body representing physio­therapists]. Knee, hip arthritis and osteoarthritis in the spine are the most common referrals,” she adds.

Osteoarthritis is the theme of this year’s World Physiotherapy Day, which is marked annually on September 8. On this day, physiotherapists across the world unite to create awareness of their role.

Physiotherapy is an allied health profession that enables and empowers the person to achieve a healthier life through movement, physical means and education.

“Physiotherapy provides a holistic approach to maximise functional potential and treats persons with physical problems caused by neuromuscular, musculoskeletal and cardio-vascular or respiratory conditions,” Victoria Massalha, lead, Physiotherapy Services, Ministry For Health, says.

“Physiotherapy helps restore movement and function to as near normal as possible when someone is affected by injury, illness, developmental problems or other disability. Different treatment modalities are used to address the needs of individual clients, including exercise, movement, therapeutic massage, electro physical agents and aquatic therapy.”

Physiotherapy is generally the first line of treatment for osteoarthritis.

“Patients usually present with pain, functional impairments, muscle weakness, joint stiffness and, at times, reduced health-related quality of life. As physiotherapists, we provide advice and education on pain relief and ways to manage OA,” Cardona says.

“Our first intervention is the prescription of exercise to help to adapt the best exercises and to treat each case individually. We help patients to improve joint movement and strengthen muscles surrounding the painful joints in order to keep them functional and independent.”

Staying active helps improve pain, reduces other symptoms and helps people stay independent

Physiotherapists also educate patients on how to prevent repetitive harmful movements or joint overload that may increase the occurrence of OA and encourage patients’ active engagement in their own treatment.

Both Cardona and Massalha emphasise the importance of maintaining an active lifestyle to maintain healthy joints, control weight and promote muscle strength.

Staying active also “helps improve pain, reduces other symptoms and helps people stay independent,” Massalha says.

In addition to exercise, physiotherapists practise hands-on treatment referred to as manual therapy, aquatic therapy and electrotherapy for pain relief within the musculoskeletal departments.

Other physiotherapy services provided in different fields in the public healthcare system include adult rehabilitation, neurological rehabilitation, pulmonary rehabilitation, cardiac rehabilitation, medical/respiratory, amputee rehabilitation, orthopaedics, geriatrics, intensive and cardiac care, pain management, surgical, oncology, women’s and men’s health, accident and emergency, and paediatrics, including the child development and assessment unit and mental health.

Patients need a referral from a doctor or consultant to access physiotherapy services, however, self-referrals are accepted in health centres and community clinics.

Different forms of therapy are available, including aquatic therapy.Different forms of therapy are available, including aquatic therapy.

World Physiotherapy Day activities

World Physiotherapy Day is being marked in Malta in various ways: through interviews on the media, a seminar on osteoarthritis for healthcare professionals, exercise classes, focus groups and educational talks and videos for patients and physiotherapists.

The Ministry of Health will be lit in white and blue lights to mark the day.

“The events and activities organised by physiotherapy departments in all public healthcare entities provide an opportunity to recognise the work that physiotherapists do for their patients and community,” Massalha says, while thanking  all the physiotherapists working in public healthcare services for their sterling work and commitment to patients.

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